Who are refugees?

A refugee is a person who has had to flee his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution due to war, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, political opinion, or association with a particular group. The United Nations must formally identify a displacement situation and declare it is legitimate in order for the population involved to be given refugee status. Ideally, refugees would be able to return home after conflict passes, but in many cases, this day never materializes.
When the United Nations determines there is no reasonable expectation that repatriation is possible, refugees are resettled elsewhere. Currently, there are more than 32.8 million asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced persons of concern to the UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency). Of these 33 million, 70,000 refugees are resettled in the United States annually--more than in all other resettlement sites combined.
In addition to the USA, 15 other UN member nations accept refugees for resettlement, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Other countries may consider resettlement petitions on a case by case basis, normally because of family reunion or strong cultural links.
Escaping conflict is just the first step in starting over. Refugees face immense challenges throughout the resettlement process as they attempt to negiotiate a new language, new culture, and often harsh economic realities. In the US, refugees are expected to achieve 100% self-sufficiency within a few months after arrival in this country, regardless of language proficiency, health, trauma, or previous work experience.
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Learn more
UNHCR: The United Nations' Refugee Website. Everything you ever wanted to know about refugees and their situation worldwide.
Faces of Resettlement, a short video of refugees telling their own resettlement stories.
Backgrounders by population, free PDF booklets explaining cultural and historical background by group
Rain in a Dry Land, a PBS/POV documentary film by Anne Makepeace (Available on Amazon Prime video)
The Somali Bantu profiled in-depth in the UNHCR magazine
The Burmese Karen: Who they are--a BBC report